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Q&A with Daniel Sutherland '85, National Counterterrorism Center

by Cullen Couch

As chief of NCTC’s Global Engagement Group, Dan Sutherland coordinates U.S. Government efforts to counter violent extremism, both in the United States and around the world. His work focuses on both near- and long-term efforts todenyterrorists the next generation of recruits. In thespring2009, he completed six years serving as the Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Libertiesat the Department of Homeland Security, where he advised three Secretaries on issues at the intersection ofliberty and security. In both positions, he has the privilege of working closely with Muslim community leaders, including some from the University.

His group has developed a Strategic Communications Planning Model that will enable the National Security Council (NSC) to bring more rigor to U.S. Government messaging.

We interviewed Sutherland by email.

1) Could you share some details about the Strategic Communications Planning Model?

Strategic planning is critical in all fields; clearly, the best litigators use it as they chart out a strategy for winning a complex case. But strategic planning is certainly needed in the complex counter-terrorism environment. Across the USG, there are a variety of perspectives and approaches to planning. It is similar to a situation where several law firms would be hired to handle aspects of the same piece of litigation; all those litigators and firms have unique styles of developing and executing strategy, and bringing them all together to a single, coherent strategy is complex.

Working with our colleagues from around the government, we have developed an intuitive planning process that bridges the individual processes of the departments and agencies of the USG, and allows both traditional and non-traditional partners to bring their respective capabilities to bear. We have been able to use this planning process to guide interagency efforts to develop Strategic Communications plans to support USG policy in several complex circumstances. The process we have developed is well suited for organizing, planning and ensuring the implementation of broad strategic plans, and it has been adopted and supported by the National Security Staff.

2) How much has the government's outreach to the Muslim community developed since 9/11? What is the state of the relationship between that community and the general public/government today?

Almost a decade after 9/11, there is a consensus that our government must engage with American Muslim communities. It is important to recognize is that there is no “Muslim community.” It must be plural: communities. Muslims in America are just as diverse as the rest of America – they are diverse ethnically, racially and religiously. This highlights the fact that government officials must concentrate on “cultural competence.” That is, we must respect people enough to learn about their cultures, values and traditions. When people feel respected, they are more willing to partner with you in work, even work as complicated as countering the recruitment tactics of violent extremists. Our country is benefiting from a great deal of enthusiasm among American Muslims to become more engaged in civic life – more are entering public service, more are pursuing careers in law, and more are becoming active in civic organizations. Many American Muslims are reaching out to us to work on the counter-terrorism challenges, either by offering expertise on the issues that face their country of origin or the issues that face young people in our country today. The relationship is excellent at this time and one of our country’s strongest assets.

3) How does your civil liberties background fit into your work with the GEG? How big a role do civil liberties play in developing counterterrorism policy?

In 2005, when I testified in front of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Lieberman correctly said that we will most effectively respond to violent extremists when we live up to our best ideals, when we are America at its very best. Maintaining a strong commitment to civil liberties is absolutely critical to our counter-terrorism efforts; it undercuts al Qaida’s entire narrative, which is based on the West being at war with Muslims. As we demonstrate that all people, including ethnic and religious minorities, can live successful and prosperous lives in America, bin Laden’s entire argument unravels.

My own background is as a civil rights litigator, and then the advisor to the Secretary of Homeland Security on civil rights and civil liberties issues, that has helped me tremendously in my current work. I have been privileged to develop great relationships with community and civil rights organizations such as the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. When you are privileged to have people like this working with you, it opens many doors.

  4) Is there a single most important strategy or tactic to countering violent extremism? How much have these strategies evolved over the past 8 years? What have we learned?

There is no single most important strategy or tactic to counter al Qaida’s narrative of violence. Our country’s leaders have clearly determined that military power, intelligence operations and law enforcement are absolutely critical. And, our understanding has deepened that these tactics must be supplemented because they will never alone solve the longer challenge the country faces – the threat of violent extremism generally, including the political, economic, and social factors that have put some individuals on the path to violence.

5) Are we any smarter now, both institutionally and technologically, in how we employ the elements of our national power?

There has been a great deal of progress since 9/11; the creation of the National Counterterrorism Center itself is a prime example. NCTC was established in late 2004 to be an interagency center that brings together personnel from more than 16 agencies and co-locates intelligence, military, law enforcement and homeland security networks under one roof. I was excited to come to NCTC from DHS because there really is no other government agency quite like this one. Just for one example, I am privileged to have on my staff experts on human rights in the Middle East, Somalia and Somali diaspora communities, Shi’a communities, civil rights and civic integration concerns of Muslim Americans, and Pakistan. I work with military officers, lawyers, diplomats, intelligence analysts, community advocates, state and local officials – NCTC is a great venue for bringing all elements of national power together, and illustrative of how the USG is attempting to work together in a “whole of government” approach.

6) How influential is public opinion/media scrutiny on what your group can do effectively?

Our role is to be in the background, helping our colleagues around the government to accomplish their responsibilities and goals more effectively. If the process works as it should, and the “countering violent extremism” work is producing tangible benefits, the leaders of the departments and agencies we work with will be receiving public notice. We will be in a supportive role, quietly helping to coordinate the great work being done.